Eden Prairie senior captain Molly Lenz was trying her best to absorb what had just taken place on the hardwood at Chaska High School Friday night.
“It feels surreal,” Lenz said. “We knew we could do it but it just doesn’t really feel real when it actually happens. So I think it’ll take a little bit for it to set in.”
Lenz and her Eagles teammates shocked top-seed Chaska in the Section 2AAAA championship game with a 60-42 victory, handing the Hawks their first loss in 22 games and earning a berth in the girls state basketball tournament at Williams Arena next week.
“It’s amazing,” Lenz said. “Obviously, it’s our goal the whole season to go to state and to do it winning by 18 is crazy.”
The senior point guard led all scorers with 22 points against the Hawks, a team which dominated the regular season, finishing atop the Class 4A rankings with a 27-1 record.
But Chaska needed more than a polished resume to make Lenz blink in the section title game.
“Her poise is so beyond her years it’s not even funny,” Eden Prairie head coach Ellen Wiese said. “She’s our quiet calm. As long as Molly is out there, we know we’re fine. She doesn’t get rattled, and nobody gets rattled because Molly’s out there.”
It wouldn’t have taken much for lesser teams to be shaken in Chaska’s intimate venue, where bleachers on all four sides come within four feet of the inbound area of the playing surface. There are no dedicated benches for the teams, who sit in the first row of the stands.
“Oh yeah, I like that,” Lenz said, underscoring her love for anything which adds to the challenge. “It makes it feel smaller, more packed and it was obviously really packed and really loud. And those are the fun games to play.”
A healthy contingent of supporters from Eden Prairie traveled west, making their presence felt throughout the contest. Red and black filled almost a third of the packed arena, with home team purple saturating the remainder of the stands.
“A lot of times the section finals are better than the state tournament games ever are,” Wiese said.
And the head coach should know. In Wiese’s seven seasons at Eden Prairie, her teams have reached the section finals four times, winning once before this season. That title win came in 2020 – at Chaska.
“There’s just something very, very special about a section final and this gym is very intimate,” she said. “People are down on top. And our fans came and supported us. So it was electric. And it was a special night.”
The lead changed hands four times in the first four minutes, with Lenz, fellow senior captain Kylie Bamlett and senior guard Annika Anderson hitting shots in the early going.
With the score tied at 18 and 1:42 remaining in the first half, Anderson hit from three to give the Eagles a 21-18 advantage – a lead they never relinquished.
Lenz, showing patience and poise, held control of the ball for 20 seconds before draining a jumper just ahead of the buzzer, giving the Eagles a 23-18 lead at the half.
“I think we beat them on teamwork,” Bamlett said. “We worked as a team, we worked together. We knew we were gonna win the game before we even hit the floor.”
The Eagles played with confidence, much in part to their determined effort in the defensive zone, shutting down Chaska’s high-powered scoring threat.
“It was our defense 100 percent,” Wiese said. “We knew every single step they ran and we ran them over and over again, so our kids just jumped the passing lanes. It was all defense.”
Eden Prairie’s defensive game flustered Hawks point guard Kennedy Sanders, who saw more than she wanted of the Eagles’ Anderson, assigned to Chaska’s best player.
“I was really just trying to focus,” Anderson said. “I knew that was my main job and I tried to just execute it. She’s a great player and if I was able to minimize her impact, it would help us get the win.”
Wiese prepared her team to recognize Chaska’s offensive schemes with such effectiveness that Eagle defenders were calling out the Hawks’ plays before they materialized.
“I think that we communicated really well. So it helped us out on defense,” said senior guard Ashley Fritz, who finished with 12 points in the game.
The Eagles not only stopped Chaska from scoring, but they dominated the defensive boards, getting the ball out to Lenz, who engineered the Eden Prairie offense.
“I think our defense was amazing,” Lenz said. “We stopped their best players, we rebounded really well and then we pushed the floor.”
A Chaska foul with 6:30 remaining put Eden Prairie in the bonus with a 43-31 lead. The Eagles scored the remainder of their 17 points from the free-throw line while playing lockdown defense to close out the game.
“This is so awesome. I’m so proud of us,” an emotional Bamlett said afterward. “I don’t think anyone put us here and I’m so excited to see what we can do at the state tournament next week.”
The celebration was underway before the final buzzer sounded. Cheers generated by the Eagles’ student section drowned out the entire arena, as Wiese raised her arms in the air, realizing victory was at hand.
“It feels like we exceeded all the expectations,” Wiese said afterward. “Are they special? Obviously, they’re super, super, super special, but nobody put us here.”
Eden Prairie held the ball during their final possession, letting the clock count down to zero as players rushed the floor to mob one another.
Students, parents, family and friends joined in the euphoria, coming to the realization that the Eagles were headed to state after upending the top-ranked team in the state.
“I’ve never been in anything like this, it’s incredible,” sophomore guard Tori Schlagel said. “I’m speechless. It feels like I’m dreaming. It’s crazy.”
Medals were presented to each player before the section championship trophy. Then a victory photo was taken at midcourt, which included youngsters from the Eden Prairie youth league, thrilled to join their high school role models on the floor.
“When you see all these young kids running around, I was about their age when they won last time,” Schlagel said, remembering the Eagles last section title, won in the same gym. “I came here and I’ve been dreaming about it ever since then. It was unreal.”
Schlagel, who helps Wiese with basketball camps for youth players, was approached by a youngster for a selfie before continuing with her recollection.
“I love little kids,” she said. “I remember being their age and always looking up to high schoolers so I try to do the same for them.”
And so the madness marches on.
The Eagles will ascend the raised floor at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus for the girls state basketball tournament.
“It feels great. It’s the perfect way to end my high school career before going to college,” Lenz said. “So I’m super excited for it and I think we can make a run at it too.”
Eden Prairie (20-9) enters the tourney as the No. 3 seed and will face Centennial (19-10), a random draw, in the quarterfinal round on Wednesday. Opening tip is at 4 p.m.
“Just having a shot at the state championship, that’s something that I’ve always dreamed of having since I was a little girl,” Anderson said. “So hopefully we’ll be able to pull it out.”
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